The burying ground and the billboard

On Monday, February 5, I received a distressing message from Lenora McQueen, descendant and key advocate for the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground. Through a review of recent photographs of the site with archaeologist and ally Ellen Chapman, the two saw that VCU Health had recently placed an advertisement on one of the two billboard panels standing on the site of the burying ground.

We knew that the billboard was constructed several decades ago on sacred ground. A few years earlier, as we finalized the National Register of Historic Places nomination for the ground/district, and as we worked with the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to place historical signage there, Lenora reached out to the billboard’s current owner, Lamar Advertising. She informed their staff of the history of the site and asked that Lamar offer space on the billboard for signage related to the burying ground’s history. It would enable a repurposing of the desecration to inform the many drivers on Interstate 64 and surrounding residents that they were traveling through and across a huge, now-invisible burying ground. Lamar responded that they could offer Lenora sign space down the road from the burying ground for that purpose, but they would not offer space on the billboard standing on the burying ground itself. We took it as another battle for another day, and Lenora saw Lamar’s counteroffer as beside the point.

Since then, I had seen a succession of advertisers on the burying ground, many of which resonated as oddly ironic. The University of Richmond placed one under the maddening tagline of “One Richmond.” Governor Glenn Youngkin’s campaign placed another, in which the defaced burying ground sat under the banner of “Youngkin’s Virginia.” A liquor company promised “Less Prep. More Party.” A motorcycle insurance company put up the picture of a tiger. A credit union put up the picture of a baby. And Lamar took an opportunity to advertise itself.

An advertisement for Glenn Youngkin’s campaign for governor, visible atop the burying ground in October 2021

But to see VCU Health advertise on the burying ground was an insult on another level. Lenora knew the deep history of VCU Health’s predecessor, the Medical College of Virginia (MCV), and the way that MCV had for decades profited off the bodies of African Americans buried in the ground, regularly stolen for use as cadavers for anatomical study. I had traced that history in my book and on this website, showing how Black bodies were moved to and from this burying ground by the institution. VCU’s latest billboard, seated directly above the remains of more than 22,000 such burials, promised “Unrelenting Hope.” The university placed this ad at the same time that it invested in efforts toward community repair, as with the East Marshall Street Well Project and VCU Health’s History and Health initiative.

Lenora stated that “The sign should be taken down and replaced with a public acknowledgement of the wrongs that have been committed to this burial ground by VCU, then and now, along with an advertised apology on the billboard.”

We immediately reached out to VCU administrators to alert them to the problems and pain of the billboard. To the administration’s credit, they responded immediately and the VCU Health ad was removed from the billboard the following day. The billboard’s other panel, facing Interstate 64, remained in place with a disgusting advertisement by a law firm featuring a three-dimensional, junked car.

The episode of VCU Health’s billboard ended up becoming a broader catalyst. Ellen Chapman took to social media (@diggingellen) to post photos of the billboard situation, including the law firm’s remaining advertisement and the situation with Lamar. Then columnist Michael Paul Williams wrote a useful piece against the billboard for the Richmond Times-Dispatch that was picked up widely. Behind the scenes, city officials negotiated with Lamar for a site swap, to enable the billboard’s darkening or removal. By February 20, with pressure building, the advertisement on the second billboard panel, facing Interstate 64, had been removed.

Finally, on February 23, Mayor Levar Stoney called for the billboard’s removal and called out Lamar’s insistence that it would only give up its billboard in exchange for six other city sites for more billboards, effectively using the Shockoe Hill African Burying Ground as a bargaining chip.

And that’s where we stand today, with a darkened billboard but a stalemate in terms of its future. It is much further than I expected we would be, a tribute to Lenora McQueen’s tireless advocacy.

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